Category Archives: Debates in DH

One man’s trash . . . is another man’s archive

“The most difficult thing about collecting is discarding.”
– Albert Köster

photo by @BeineckeLibrary

photo by @jmhuculak

The photo above was taken outside Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Those long rectangular drawers you see are what’s left of of that pre-digital archive known as the card catalog. The genealogy of this “universal paper machine”  has been detailed by Markus Krajewski in his delightful book Paper Machines. About Cards & Catalogs, 1548 -1929. Far from being the first form of reference technology, this system is only one in a long series of attempts to discover, store and classify knowledge. Yet the transition from the painstakingly compiled paper archive to the extended technological networks which are replacing that archive is more than a simple change in office furniture. The dumpster’s contents signal a change far more dramatic than replacing an index card with a doi, or swapping the cabinetry for a computer.

With a card catalog, the information on the index card would signal to its reader a wide range of information. This exchange between reader and the material read was relatively unproblematic, unless of course the information contained on the card catalog was written in an unfamiliar alphabet or language, or the reader lacked the basic literacy required to grasp the information. Thanks to this information, our reader might find have been able to find the location of the books in the library, some broad subject headings, and other bibliographical information. The reader would have acted on that information by either requesting the volume at the circulation desk, or moving on to a different bibliographic record all together.

In a similar vein, the Resource Description Framework  represents information about resources in the World Wide Web, but instead of using natural language on index cards to communicate sufficient meaning to our curious reader, it communicates that information in a machine readable form. It represents similar metadata about Web resources, such as the title, author, and modification date of a Web page, in addition to any copyright or licensing information. Yet unlike the card catalog, RDF  allows this information to be processed by applications, rather than being  displayed to people. It provides a common framework for expressing this information, so it can be exchanged between applications without loss of meaning.

photo by @jmhuculak

The photo on the left provides a good example. The data stored in the card catalogs could be compared to an application running on a single machine. The only people needing to understand the meaning of a given variable such as “author” or “date of publication” are those who consulted that card catalog directly. In the case of an application running on a single machine, those people would be the programmers reading the source code. But if we want the data contained in this card catalog to participate in a larger network, such as the world wide web, the meanings of the messages the applications exchange, “author”, “date of publication,” etc. need to be explicit.

In fact, currently far too much of the data fueling web applications is prevented from being shared and integrated into other Internet applications. The compartmentalization of the card catalog has carried over into web applications and data transmission becomes entangled in stovepipe systems, or “systems procured and developed to solve a specific problem, characterized by a limited focus and functionality, and containing data that cannot be easily shared with other systems.” (DOE 1999) These applications, instead of allowing users to combine data in new ways to make powerful and compelling connections, risk becoming the digital equivalent of an abandoned card catalog in a dumpster.

As more and more digital humanists share and distribute their work via the world wide web, a working knowledge of the importance of programming for the semantic web becomes essential. Simple mechanisms such as RDF play a key role in transmitting semantic data between machines while allowing applications to combine data in new ways. Much like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris LessmoreRDF allows meaningful data transmission to rejoin the many applications hiding behind web interfaces. It transforms what might have been discarded into data rich applications. It also enables digital humanists to join their work to a larger ocean in “the stream of stories.”

Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

cross posted at HASTAC

Expanding Debates in the Digital Humanities

Jen Howard has a review in the Times Literary Supplement on Matthew Gold’s edited volume, Debates in the Digital Humanities. Gold is an assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology, an advisor to the Provost for Master’s Programs and Digital Initiatives at the CUNY Graduate Center, and is the director of the CUNY Academic Commons. Earlier this year, I posted some of my reflections on the book in a post entitled, A Boundless Domain of Culture.

The arrival of the volume in the UK (and the upcoming launch of its online platform) comes on the heels of extensive coverage in North America and raises some important questions concerning the current monolingual nature of such debates (at least in print) and the dilemmas of digital humanists whose geographical and digital presence on the hub and spoke system of the map above continues to be dependent upon economic and political factors. It is, in fact, not such a boundless domain of culture after all.

This Global Internet Map, by Telegeography, illustrates the Internet’s highest capacity routes and its global hub cities. We could easily compare this map to centerNet’s map of their international network of digital humanities centers and see a general convergence of the two. Yet,  Telegeography’s assessment of future functionality of the Internet, a prerequisite for the growth and diffusion of the digital humanities as a scholarly practice,  signals future challenges to scholarship not just for the digital humanities, but to all  scholars working in the digital age.

“For the Internet to function, the world’s internet service providers and content distributors must interconnect their networks. While some providers freely exchange traffic between themselves, a practice called “peering,” most providers must purchase upstream “transit.” In a transit agreement, the customer network pays to have its traffic carried by the transit provider to the rest of the Internet. Transit prices are cheapest in cities where major IP backbone operators have presence and competition is strong. As such, the price of a transit port can serve as a proxy for how close a city is to the economic “center” of the Internet. The cheaper the transit, the closer the city is to the Internet core.”

The essays in Gold’s volume touch on debates among those who inhabit cities proximate to that “Internet core.” Lisa Spiro, director of the US National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education Labs, indicates in her essay that the digital humanities converge around something called “Internet values.” These may include collaboration, the open sharing of information, and experimentation, but I would argue that they also should extend beyond what Howard Rheingold has dubbed netsmarts  to questions of digital hegemony that are raised  by the Internet’s physical infrastructure, explored recently in a book by Andrew Blum. Expanding these debates in the digital humanities to reimagine our notions about culture, knowledge, or communication could be, in the words of Andrew Prescott, the challenge of making the digital human.

Cross posted at HASTAC and at [archive]

De nostri temporis studiorum ratione: Giambattista Vico and digital ecosystems

It might seem anachronistic to call on the work of an eighteenth century philosopher to elucidate some of the issues at play in the debates swirling around the digital humanities, but Giambattista Vico has been on my mind lately as we prepare for a conference on his work today and tomorrow at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Vico (1668-1744) was an Italian philosopher, rhetorician and jurist. He worked in relative obscurity during his lifetime teaching rhetoric at the University of Naples. His succinct De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (1709) provides a useful lens through which we might consider the digital humanities.  The work, known in the English translation as On the Study Methods of Our Time, was Vico’s first foray into philosophy, and was the seventh in a series of inaugural lectures given at the University of Naples in his position as professor of rhetoric.

In his lecture, Vico took aim at the inadequacy of the critical and pedagogical methods of his contemporaries while weighing the comparative merits of classical and modern culture. In order to discern just how current “study methods” might be superior or inferior to the Ancients, Vico sets up a distinction between the new arts, sciences and inventions – the constituent material of learning – and and the new instruments and aids to knowledge – the ways and means of learning.

Vico’s critique of the Moderns took issue with the logicians of Port-Royal, and their Cartesian method of compartmentalizing knowledge. For Vico, this reductive method of study precludes the human, and is inferior to that of the Ancients: “We devote all of our efforts to the investigation of physical phenomena, because their nature seems unambiguous; but we fail to inquire into human nature which, because of the freedom of man’s will, is difficult to determine.” The result, Vico warns, is that students “because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence.” By reducing what there is to know, he argues, we limit our ability to engage with the world on a broader scale. Diminished by our learning, we will be incapable of dealing practically with issues of change or transformation, which require the ability to recognize and follow the most suitable or sensible course of action.

For Vico, the methods of logicians such as Antoine Arnaud and Pierre Nicole and their followers established the constituent material of learning through a process of narrowing the domain of knowledge. Much in the same way that Francis Bacon took issue with the syllogisms of the scholastics to argue that knowledge of the world should be grounded in carefully verified facts, Vico doesn’t limit himself to providing a new method to achieve old-fashioned knowledge. He redefines what it means to know.  And, since the instruments (including logic) used by his contemporaries, those ways and means to that material which constitutes knowledge, were antecedent to the task of learning, the knowledge they yielded was determined by their premisses for their creation. In the technology they harnessed, and in the aims they fulfilled, these instruments were restricted by the discourses which produced them. In reducing knowledge to the unambiguous, the logicians of Port Royal reduced knowledge to what their brains and their technology enabled them to master.

For the digital humanities, it is this category — the ways and means of learning — that carries within it a transformative potential for the constituent material of learning, but in a radically different way from that to which Vico directed his critique. In a scribal or a print environment, the constituent material of learning is often shaped and transformed by its means of transmission (see for example the work of Roger Chartier and Peter Stallybrass); that which is yielded instrumentally, will “speak” a language inherent in the design of the instrument. The critique Vico levelled at Cartesian method, that critics had placed “their fundamental truths before, outside, and above every bodily image of reality” illustrates an extreme case of how the instrument of logic could override the countenance of real life.  In other words, if the only instrument available to us is a hammer, by constraint of  circumstances, everything looks like a nail.

In our current digital environment, we are only beginning to see how the consituent material of learning is radically transformed by the ways and means in which it is transmitted. Rather than dealing with a reduction of knowledge, this time technology has allowed us to expand knowledge into a boundless domain, one whose complexity trumps theory and whose scale defies our individual and physiological capacity to grasp it. The digital humanities is currently grappling with this conundrum: by transforming what it means to know something, particularly in a boundless domain of culture, a discipline is emerging which attempts to come to terms with current interaction of millions of different pieces of human culture, past and present, digital and analog, while critically reflecting on the very nature of human knowledge itself.

David Weinberger has addressed this very problem in his book Too Big to Know.  Weinberger makes a pithy call for a “rethinking of knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room.” One wonders what Giambattista Vico would have made of such a room. . .

Cross posted at HASTAC

A boundless domain of culture?

Debates and the digital humanities

debatessmallThere has been a flurry of debates recently surrounding the digital humanities, sparked in part by the publication of Matthew Gold’s volume, Debates in the Digital Humanities, and Stanley Fish’s extended responses in the New York Times. Annual conferences for both the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association featured numerous roundtables and panels concerning the humanities computing, digital pedagogy and electronic infrastructures for scholarly work. The text based scholarship so vital to the work of the humanities (and its related infrastructure) is both complicated and broadened by digital technologies and the digital humanities has emerged front and center proclaiming its suitability as the discipline best positioned to explore a post-Gutenberg galaxy.

Nearly sixty sessions at this year’s MLA had a digital humanities connection (see Mark Sample’s post).  During a session on Literary Research in/and Digital Humanities convened by James R. Kelly,  a Humanities Bibliographer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Heather Bolwby discussed some of the factors involved in successfully launching Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King as a digital resource. In her presentation, Bowlby pointed out some of the considerations she had to take into account with the project,  including locating the necessary technical support, determining how the resource would  function within different scholarly contexts, securing an enduring online space to house the resource, and collaborating with librarians and other professionals in related fields to fit the resource within pre-existing institutional frameworks.

So the stately Queen abode
For many a week, unknown, among the nuns;
Nor with them mix’d, nor told her name, nor sought,
Wrapt in her grief, for housel or for shrift,
But communed only with the little maid,
Who pleased her with a babbling heedlessness
Which often lured her from herself.
(Idylls of the King, Book XI – l. 144-150)


[Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘The Little Novice and the Queen’, plate XI from The Idylls of the King, albumen print 1874]

Bowlby’s project aimed at the reproduction of the physical object as much as possible in an electronic format while maintaining the appropriate scholarly framework. Yet reproduction, as anthropologist Marilyn Strathern reminds us, involves two processes. The first, is the process of replication, when the original material is duplicated. The second process is one of expression, when the replication of the original material takes shape within a new context.  Bowlby presented her efforts as “case study of the problems facing graduate students involved in similar digital projects.”

The digital duplication of the physical object, whether it be a rare photograph, a manuscript or a scholarly monograph, no longer poses difficulty, but the process of its expression and its context is at the crux of many of the debates surrounding digital humanities today. What form will that expression take? Will it conform to current (and future?) standards for preservation and sustainability? And what is the appropriate context for that expression? Will it ensure its continued expression over time? Will it allow the expression to be accessible to many or to a select few? Will the context overwhelm the expression? And will that context be re-iterated or aggregated in other contexts? If so, how? Just as the potential for duplication is seemingly endless in a digital context, so too is the potential for expression and for an infinity of contexts within this boundless domain.

Pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was particularly sensitive to questions of reproduction and expression in her photographs for Tennyson’s work. Using a new and challenging medium such as photography in such unique ways for the time, Cameron’s illustrations deliberately imitated the oil paintings in the style of the contemporary Pre-Raphaelite painters.  Why? As she explained simply, “my aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” Her project to “ennoble photography” is similar to the project of many digital humanists today: to ennoble their field as one worthy of expression and of context. What must the digital humanities find then to secure for it “the character and uses” of a discipline or a scholarly presence within a boundless domain of culture?

cross posted at HASTAC